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The GM Wentzville Plant Depends on Robots

FILE PHOTO: Two frame-flipping robots turn over the 2,000 pound frames of trucks and vans on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, at the GM truck and van assembly plant in Wentzville. The robots do many of the jobs that workers used to do. The frame starts out upside down in the assembly process and then the robots flip the frames over. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — The United States’ largest automaker is poised to get $50 million in state tax subsidies to invest in its St. Charles County truck plant under legislation approved by Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday.

In a ceremony in his Capitol office, the Republican governor put his signature on the centerpiece of his first legislative session while flanked by lawmakers and at least one representative of General Motors.

The package is designed to give GM $5 million per year in tax credits over a 10-year period if the company invests at least $750 million in its Wentzville assembly plant.

The facility, situated about 40 miles west of St. Louis, employs about 3,500 workers and supports more than 12,000 employees at 178 suppliers in Missouri.

The push for state assistance, which dominated the final weeks of the Legislature’s spring session, came as GM was shuttering five plants in North America and laying off more than 14,000 salaried and hourly workers as part of a restructuring.

Supporters of the plan said the incentive package would help the Missouri plant avoid a similar fate. The administration never released a list of potential competitors for the plant.

Opponents, including a bloc of St. Charles County Republicans, argued that Parson was pushing for subsidies the company didn’t need, as well as creating a so-called “slush fund” that would have little legislative oversight.

In a statement, GM said the company is still mulling its options.

“This action is a step in the right direction, but GM is still evaluating the overall business case for this potential project and has no announcements to make at this time,” the company noted.

Parson said he was hopeful the company would launch the expansion.

“We’re looking for a bright future on that,” he said.

“It’s not just about one auto manufacturer, it’s about the supplier base,” added Dan Mehan, executive director of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The measure moved quickly through the GOP-controlled House, but stalled in the Senate in the closing days of the session when Republican Sens. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring and Bob Onder of Lake Saint Louis staged a 27-hour filibuster in opposition to the legislation.

In addition to the tax credits for GM, the plan contains elements of Parson’s “Fast Track” job training scholarship program for adults.

Parson had initially sought $22 million for the program, but wary lawmakers pared the amount to $10 million. And, rather than use money out of the state’s general checkbook, the scholarships will be financed with proceeds from the state Lottery.

Parson, who took over as governor last year after the departure of scandal-plagued Gov. Eric Greitens, made workforce development a cornerstone of his legislative agenda in January.

The job training program will cover the cost of tuition and fees for degrees and vocational certificates for in-demand jobs for adults over the age of 25.

Parson said the new program will not only benefit workers, but will help businesses that cannot fill vacancies because of a lack of trained workers.

The new law, which goes into effect Aug. 28, also has two other economic development programs the Republican governor sought, including a “deal closing fund” that could be tapped by his administration without legislative approval to lure companies to the state.

The legislation does not mention any number of new jobs that would be created at the plant where the Chevrolet Colorado, Chevrolet Express Cargo Van, GMC Canyon pickup trucks, and GMC Savana full-size van are built. The facility has been in operation since 1983.

In remarks before signing the legislation, Parson said it was a privilege to serve his first year in office.

“It was a very successful year. A lot of people worked hard to get to the finish line,” Parson said. “Some of the things we got done this year ... it’s pretty amazing.”

The legislation is Senate Bill 68.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch